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Tale of the lost wag

Pay attention to your dog's tail during hunting season — repeated exposure to cold, wet environments can contribute to "cold-water tail." 

It was one of the coldest December days I could remember. As Dakota and I climbed out of the blind, I could see the ice hanging from his black coat.

"Come on boy," I said.

Now, I knew that Dakota always hated leaving the blind, but this time something was different. That dog would rather be in a blind than anywhere in the world, but never before had he looked so dejected.

It couldn't be because he had not gotten to work. The four greenheads, Susie, and the woody had filled our limit. And Dakota had worked hard for the largest greenhead after it had gone down in a thicket by the timber.

No, for this lab to have such a drooped tail was highly unusual.

Have you ever experienced a story like that one? If so, your retriever may have had a case of "cold-water tail" or "frozen tail". Both mean the same thing. After working in cold and wet conditions, your retriever's tail simply quits working.

Known in the bird dog world as "limber tail," exactly when and what causes a case to occur is somewhat of a mystery. It causes the tail to look like it is dead — just hanging there. When you pick it up and let go, it just drops right back down, or in some cases, the tail will hang limp except for three or four inches right at the base. In most cases the tail is not painful, but when it is, pressure applied to the base may make the dog cry out in pain.

The inability of a dog to move a "limber tail" is due to damage that has occurred to the tail muscles. Many of theses muscles utilize long tendons to create tail movement from the base to the tip. An analogy is seen in how the muscles of your forearm move certain parts of your hand and fingers. (You can try this yourself. Rest your left forearm and hand on a table, palm down. Place your right hand on the fat part of your left forearm just below your elbow. Now, move the middle finger of your left hand up and down. Your right hand should be able to feel the muscles in your left forearm working to move your finger).

Predisposing factors for developing cold-tail include heavy hunting or workouts in cold, wet environments. These combinations somehow work together to create the problem. Confinement to an area, such as a crate or kennel, for long periods has also been known to correlate with cases. The problem will reoccur in approximately two-thirds of affected dogs, probably because many continue to participate in predisposing activities.

Since the exact cause of cold-tail is not known, it is impossible to prescribe a consistently effective treatment. Many owners familiar with the problem simply rest their affected dogs. This approach is usually successful and makes sense, since the body can repair muscle damage naturally if given the appropriate amount rest. When rested, most cold-tail dogs recover spontaneously within a few days to weeks.

Anecdotal reports suggest that if anti-inflammatory drugs are given within a few hours of the start of an episode, this will decrease the recovery time.

Because it is not a common problem cold-tail can be mistaken for other, more serious, diseases or injuries. Owners need to be aware of the problem so that they can take necessary steps when encountered, but in the end, the best medicine for a case of limber tail may be just a strong dose of patience.